Will we be Toronto the tacky?

By Stig Harvor –

Harvor,-Stig-BWThere are currently two significant development projects at opposite ends of the St. Lawrence Old Town area. The first is the monster condo proposal at the west end at 40 The Esplanade directly behind the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. The other is the fate of the First Parliament site at the east end below Front St. between Berkeley and Parliament. Both projects profoundly affect the historic aspect of the district.

It is crunch time for the high-density, high-rise condo project at 40 The Esplanade. The project was presented to city planners in February this year in its original form of two towers, one 33 storeys, the other 25 on a 5-storey podium. The plans broke both the allowable density and height limit by an audacious four times the allowable.

This massive proposal quickly aroused concern. Coun. Pam McConnell instigated a city planning study of the surrounding area where development pressures are increasing by leaps and bounds. Public involvement was encouraged.

Front-St-lookingbwIn October, the developer agreed to trim the 25-storey tower to 16. This was done to reduce the impact on the sensitive historic, low- and mid-rise area next door in the same city block along Church and Front.

On Nov. 8 planners released their final report supporting the project in its revised form. Many citizens of the St. Lawrence Old Town community disagreed. They appeared at the community council meeting on Nov. 16 to voice their concerns.

A primary fear was that the project would become a precedent for the larger area of Old Town. No firm city area plans exist at present. The elaboration of such plans is now just starting with completion scheduled for mid-2005.

Arguments were made for and against the four levels of above-grade public parking forbidden by existing zoning. Adjacent property owners worried about the effect of the podium on their buildings.

The community council neither approved nor rejected the project. Members wanted further discussions with the developer. They passed the project on to city council. They directed planners to prepare a supplementary report dealing with minor changes to the location and height of the 33-storey tower as well as a study of the impact of the podium on adjoining properties on the east.

The developer, Cityzen Development Group, now appears to have three choices: (1) Accept minor changes. (2) Lobby city council to pass the project according to the November planning report. (3) Proceed with the appeal they have already initiated at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

An OMB appeal would cost them more money and delay the project. On the other hand, the developer-friendly board may accept their original design despite all expressed opinion against it both by city planners and the public.

The provincially appointed OMB, since the Harris years, has become a roadblock to proper city planning. It has absolute and binding powers to reverse city decisions.

Our new government at Queen’s Park must quickly get on with its stated aim to reduce the excessive and anti-democratic powers of its non-accountable board. Our city is larger than many provinces in our country. Toronto is capable of doing its own city planning.

At the east end of the St. Lawrence Old Town district, the long and complicated story of the First Parliament site is getting more convoluted by the day.

The site accommodated the first, modest 1797 parliament buildings burned by American invaders in the War of 1812. It then housed the second parliament buildings and later a jail. It was sold in 1879 and ignored as an important historic site for the next century. Then only four years ago, a preliminary archeological dig miraculously uncovered traces of the original parliament buildings.

City council’s attempts to buy part of the site were thwarted by the forced amalgamation of our city in 1997. Instead, this part on the corner of Front and Berkeley St. was bought in the year 2000 for $5.1 million by Downtown Fine Cars, dealers in luxury cars. There is today a Porsche sales and service building on the land. As a newspaper put it: “Porsches to Pave Parliament.”

To get the land back into public ownership, a complex real estate deal has been worked out by the city and province with Dr. Sylvester Chuang of Downtown Fine Cars.

Within several years, the Porsches would move across Front St. to private land owned by Chuang along Parliament St. next to the existing Staples big-box store. The city would add to this site public land along King St. formerly occupied by a TTC turn-around. The present Porsche site would return to public ownership.

The deal with Downtown Fine Cars does not stop there. The company would also get a large piece of prominent public land at 45 Eastern Ave. in the block formerly occupied by the Elte Carpet Co. It is a highly visible site at the V-intersection with Front and Trinity St. It would house dealerships for both Volkswagen and Infiniti.

The major trouble is that the site is the gateway to the new West Don Lands neighbourhood, a large mixed-use community carefully planned as part of the revitalized Toronto waterfront. The plan envisages this block along Front St. as the commercial centre of the new community with street-related buildings for retail, not as land servicing cars.

To make matters worse, Chuang is seeking city approval to erect a suburban-style car lot with two sales and service buildings surrounded by cars. He claims the Volkswagen and Infiniti parent companies insist on standard, cookie-cutter plans reproduced everywhere without regard for the setting.

Residents around the abandoned industrial wasteland of the West Don Lands are upset. They have been organizing for seven years in a West Don Lands Committee comprised of 13 local community and business groups to promote good development for 8,000 people on the vast, 80-acre (32 hectare) area.

Excellent plans have at last been developed for this land over the last two years by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp. with extensive involvement of the city and the public. Construction is slated to start next year. Before the first shovel hits the ground, the prospect now is for a key site of the new community to be occupied by cars, not people.

This sorry state of affairs has come about in a commendable but by now a twisted, misguided attempt to save the part of the First Parliament site occupied today by Chuang’s Porsches.

It was the provincial Ontario Realty Corporation (ORC) that offered 45 Eastern Ave. to Chaung. The reason for this is unclear. The ORC owns most of the West Don Lands. Other ORC land is available.

The price to the public has become a heavy one. The total public land given to Chuang at no cost is almost three times greater than his present Porsche site. He paid $5.1 million for this site which included a simple building that he renovated and expanded into a sleek sales and service centre.

Based on that price, the value of his free, public land is about $13 million. Subtract the millions he spent on his present Porsche site, and he ends up probably gaining at least $5 million on his new deal.

ORC has signed a confidential purchase and sale agreement for 45 Eastern Ave. conditional on a city building permit. The city is prepared to lift its “Hold” zoning designation for the site conditional on certain requirements for site-plan approval that have not yet been met. Site-plan approval precedes the issuance of a building permit. The deal, therefore, is still incomplete.

Last minute attempts are now being made to redesign the car lot from a sprawling suburban style to a compact urban form. This means hiding the cars from the street and adapting the buildings to the site.

So far, Chuang has resisted. Impatient with delays in approval, he, like the developer of 40 The Esplanade, has applied for a hearing at the all-powerful Ontario Municipal Board which can overrule the city.

Must our city and province settle for the present, complex and expensive land deal with Dr. Chuang? This deal will save only a minor part of the First Parliament site but ruin the first serious attempt to create a vibrant, new neighbourhood on the West Don Lands. The answer must be: No.

If the deal is revoked, all is not lost. The First Parliament site can still be acquired. The initial step would be for the province to declare the site a historic one under stronger legislation now in the works and hopefully soon to be law. This would protect the site from further development. The land could then at an opportune moment be expropriated under existing laws.

It will all cost money. But if cities around the world, including Montreal, can value and protect their historic founding sites, why cannot we?